Village church a treasure at the lake


The Catholic Church of St Werenfried in Waihi Village, southern Lake Taupo, is truly a taonga. Only a hop, skip and jump from the edge of Lake Taupo, its slim spire stands out against the dark green bush above the cluster of houses, a large wharenui and a mausoleum.
I’ve visited it many times by boat and by land, branching off from the SH41 just north of Tokaanu. This is a private village (designated so by Parliament) of about 20 households. So I always ask permission from a resident and it’s always happily given. When I visited in October, the old man who gave me permission wanted a hug before I left.

The inside of Catholic Church of St Werenfried in Waihi Village.

The inside of Catholic Church of St Werenfried in Waihi Village.

I looked back at the church as I was leaving. Above and behind it the bush was swirling with steam from the geothermal area that’s known as the Hipaua Steaming Cliffs. It looked, for all the world, as though the church was being wrapped in wispy clouds come down from heaven.
The church’s interior is small, intimate, friendly — strongly Maori with a touch of Rome.
Roof trusses and rafters are in ko-whaiwhai patterns with strong scrolling. Tukutuku covers the walls where the Stations of the Cross are depicted and two stained glass windows show a Maori Christ and a Maori Madonna and Child. Sun is needed to light up these windows but, on my last visit it was lacking. There was more mist than sun.
More traditionally Catholic is the high altar with its silver candelabra, embroidered cloth and holy statues.
The church was built about 1889 by the mission priest of the time, Fr J.W. Smiers, in honour of his patron saint, St Werenfried, a Germanic saint of the early Middle Ages.
The name became more famous than its medieval original after World War II. A Dutch priest, who took the religious name of Werenfried, adopted the cause of the 14 million German civilians (six million of them Catholic) who were displaced from the east after the war.
Fr Werenfried van Straaten was a founder of the international Catholic association “Aid to the Church in Need”. He became known as the “Bacon Priest” after he successfully appealed for contributions of food for the German refugees — and Flemish farmers gave considerable amounts of meat.
According to an account in the Mobil New Zealand Travel Guide, Catholicism came to Waihi in a bizarre way. Amused by the competing promises between Anglican, Wesleyan and Catholic missionaries, Chief Te Heuheu decided on a trial between the two main contenders.
“Each was to bare his posterior and sit on a bed of red hot coals. Whoever had the more powerful atua would last the longer. Prudently, the Anglican missionary, the Rev. Richard Taylor, declined to participate, leaving the way clear for his rival, Fr Lampila, merely to make the gesture of lowering his trousers to be declared the winner.”
I can’t vouch for that unlikely story, but historical records do confirm that the Catholic Church was indeed established in 1850 and carried on its association in the area for a long time, with Waihi as its headquarters. On the other hand, the Anglican Church tried during the 1840s to set up a permanent mission, but it didn’t take hold and was abandoned until later.

Fr Adrian Langerwerf (extreme left) in a photo taken in 1897. Photo supplied by: Timo Langerwerf

Fr Adrian Langerwerf (extreme right) in a photo taken in 1897. Photo supplied by: Timo Langerwerf

A wider Catholic parish was established in 1889, with Fr Smiers being its first priest. It was in 1903 that Fr Adrian Langerwerf came to Waihi. He dedicated himself to improving the social conditions of his parishioners as well as serving their spiritual needs.
Fr Langerwerf’s determination to improve local living conditions led him to encourage the building of a butter factory at Waihi — which lasted for eight years — and also a power plant to produce electricity from the water power of the Waihi Falls. The plant continued until 1960.
To improve the access for the factory, the energetic Fr Langerwerf and his parishioners built a road from Tokaanu to Waihi. Part of that road is now incorporated in the Tokaanu-Taumarunui Highway.

Fr Adrian Langerwerf

Fr Adrian Langerwerf

The village and its church have always lived dangerously, given those unstable steaming cliffs leaking thermal steam from crags and fissures. This region has unique scientific features — an earthquake fault, a volcanic zone and active geothermal features.
In 1910, a ridge behind the village collapsed and one person was killed. The village was moved further west along the foreshore to its present site.
Even in this tranquil peaceful spot, the village is not immune. Residents were evacuated on June 29, 2009, after a series of small earthquakes that led to fears of a landslide. They returned a month later.
The Te Heuheu Mausoleum, near the meeting house, commemorates Te Heuheu the Great, who was killed by a landslide in the village’s previous location in 1846. It was his son who gave the nucleus of Tongariro National Park — New Zealand’s first — to the nation.
So this village and its gorgeous little church have punched well above their weight in the history of the region and of New Zealand.

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NZ Catholic Staff

Reader Interactions


  1. Robin H J Morris says

    My Prayer

    Lord bring peace to the Palestinians and freedom from the vicarious shackles of sick America and her British underdogs, responsible for the deaths of 20 000 Afrikaner women and children in concentration camps and the subjugation of their nation of peasant-like farmers with the appropriation of their sheep and cattle and the destruction of their homes and crops through the Crown’s policy of “scorched earth. “ ( A decade later the combined Anzac forces in World War I totaled 26 000 and the few who died are still remembered ).
    Vivid memories these soul destroying and heart breaking events were a bar to our gracious Ouma Smuts, wife of Field-Marshall Jan Christiaan Smuts, consenting to being introduced to the British Royal family when they visited South Africa in 1947. Instead their Royal Highnesses , showing commendable compassion, journeyed to “ Irene “, their farm near Pretoria, to meet Ouma Smuts in her simple wood and corrugated iron home.

    Lord, forgive us for the deaths of the 1 300 Palestinians shelled in Gaza in a single month over December 2008 and January 2009 of whom a third were children and the 1 900 shelled in July 2014. While the British public have rightfully been mortified and brought to tears by the death of a soldier on their home soil, they stand condemned in the face of their indifference and inaction to the deaths and sufferings of the Palestinian people at the hands of their international kinsmen. Lord what have you spawned? British morality and Christianity are in bed with weevils.
    The ongoing deaths and sufferings of the Palestinian people will surely be visited upon the white English-speaking peoples and there will be no escape.
    Lord, may thy will be done. The horrors of our actions and inactions cannot be redeemed by those virtues of which we may still be blessed, but only by thy forgiveness.
    Robin H J Morris
    British Methodist
    South African Attorney

  2. Timo Langerwerf says

    I have pictures of Langerwerf if you want them. They are very rare of course. I can email them. I hope for you to publish them here. I tried giving them to http://www .teara. govt. nz / en / biographies/3l4/l angerwerf-adrian-cornelius already but they said the following: WE ONLY ACCEPT HD PICTURES! WOW! Really? HD pictures from 1900’s? Guess I am going to have to pass on that. Needless to say, the pictures are not HD. They are the best quality possible though. I would be VERY happy if you would accept them and publish them here.

  3. Magdalen Sheahan (dolc) says

    Correction: Please note that Father Swiers, should read Fr J Smiers, see ‘Mill Hill & Maori Mission page 245

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